England’s forests are home to an abundance of wildlife, including some of our most interesting animals and plants - from the eerie buzzing spider to spectacular purple emperor butterflies.
For 100 years, the Forestry Commission has been planting and looking after the nation’s forests to help the creatures that call them home. Today, they need our support more than ever before.
In the face of climate breakdown, the impacts of pollution and a growing, predominantly urban population, the job of looking after the nation’s forests has never been so important.
Innovative and collaborative
We need to be innovative and collaborative to help forest wildlife flourish. We also need to balance the use of woodlands for recreation and producing sustainable timber.
A great responsibility rests on our shoulders. There are also roles for our partners, supporters and visitors to play in helping us achieve our ambitions.
Together, we can create bigger, wildlife-rich forests for generations to come.
2019 has been an exciting year in our forests.
As part of our centenary celebrations, we launched the Big Forest Find, the largest ever survey of England’s forest wildlife. Through a combination of expert-led events and self-led explorations into the forest, we received 15,000 observations about woodland flora and fauna.
In Dalby Forest, volunteers discovered Sarcophaga rosellei, a type of flesh fly that hasn’t been seen in Yorkshire for over five years.
In Viridor Wood, near Wigan, 37 different bird species were identified at an event in just over an hour.
At Westonbirt Abortetum, 110 different species of moths were recorded as well as two species of worm that hadn’t been seen in the area before.
Overall, we charted more than 50 priority species, which are identified as being the most at risk in the UK. The Big Forest Find has already proven to be an extremely useful tool.
As climate change pushes wildlife to explore territories further north, it’s essential to continue gathering as much information about how different species are faring. This will help us take the necessary measures to support the species that call our forests home.
Bringing wildlife back
2019 also saw the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Wight. It’s the first time the birds have graced the skies of southern Britain for 240 years.
We also released eighteen pine marten in the Forest of Dean, while two Eurasian beavers have been introduced to an enclosure at Cropton Forest in Yorkshire. It’s wonderful to see these animals back where they belong, and playing essential roles in the forest ecosystem.
Our centenary year was also the eleventh successive year of ospreys breeding at Kielder Forest. In that time, the population has grown from one to six breeding pairs, with other birds visiting the area each summer.
We also released more water voles onto the banks of Kielder’s watercourses, taking the total to over 1200 since the project began in 2017. Prior to that, ‘Ratty’ hadn’t been seen in Kielder for over 30 years.
We’re excited to follow the progress of these landmark projects. In addition, we want to find more ways of increasing forest wildlife populations in the years and decades ahead.
It’s not all about exciting reintroductions and releases. We’ve also got to make sure our forests continue to provide the diverse habitats that wildlife needs to thrive.
This includes creating the right combination of wooded and open areas, continuing to restore wet and waterlogged habitats, ensuring watercourses are clean, and safeguarding veteran trees and deadwood.
Our forest design plans are essential for this, providing us with long-term visions for our forests and detailing the requirements for biodiversity in a particular area.
But we also recognise that things can change. Dramatic fluctuations in the climate and invasive species pose huge challenges to UK wildlife.
This could mean that, guided by research and observation, we may need to alter our approach at a specific time. This is nothing new, as we’ve been evolving as an organisation for a hundred years.
One of our main objectives today is planting a greater variety of tree species in our forests.
In 1919, the Forestry Commission was established to create a reserve of timber after the First World War. As a result, fast-growing conifers dominated the landscape.
However, the times and our approach have changed. For several decades we have recognised the value of planting a wider range of species, utilising the natural regeneration of our native species, and retaining greater age and genetic diversity in our forests.
Diverse forests are more resilient to climate change and tree disease. They also create more vibrant woodland ecosystems, from the highest canopy to the forest floor.
Of course we will continue to plant conifers used in productive forestry like Corsican pine, Sitka spruce and Douglas fir. But we’re also breeding native trees tolerant to disease, significantly increasing broadleaf cover and planting more diversely across the country.
Today, a fifth of the trees we plant across the public forest estate are new, alternative species. They include different types of redwood, tulip, cedar and maple.
Bridging the gap
The size of the land we look after allows us to work at forest and landscape scale. This involves creating wildlife corridors to enable different species to move through the forest.
We also work closely with partners and other landowners to ensure those passageways continue beyond our borders.
There is no doubt UK wildlife is facing an uphill battle. The findings in this year’s State of Nature report clearly demonstrated that.
But there is also cause for optimism with a wealth of landscape-scale projects, measures to tackle pollution, an increase in nature-friendly farming, species reintroductions and habitat restoration programmes.
More people are playing their part than ever before. There has been a 40 percent increase in volunteering since 2000 with young people in particular flying the flag for the natural world.
We will harness that enthusiasm, and do everything we can to keep our forests healthy and full of life for the next 100 years.
Andrew Stringer is Head of Environment and Forest Planning at Forestry England, an agency of the Forestry Commission. He is passionate about ensuring that quality scientific research is successfully applied to conservation management and practice.